Themes of family and friendship predominate in master fantasist Peter S. Beagle’s newest collection of short stories, Sleight of Hand. Including three originals, the text of a podcast story from The Green Man Review, and other narratives that have come from the pen of Beagle over the last three years, Sleight of Hand is a strong collection by an author whose skill has only improved with time.
The collection opens with an all new, previously unpublished Schmendrick tale. “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon” uses the tale within a tale construction to explore the nature of marriage in the world of The Last Unicorn. Set before the events of Beagle’s seminal work, Schmendrick is wandering the world, aimlessly and haplessly. A chance encounter with two children leads to a dinner and tale trading between Schmendrick and the children’s single mother. Though this tale features favorite Beagle characters, it is probably the least exceptional of the collection. It feels as aimless as its main character is. However, though its direction is unclear, it certainly possesses an emotive force in its portrayal of loss, loneliness, and the uplifting effect of a momentary acquaintance.
Schmendrick’s story is followed by the narrative which gives the collection its name, Sleight of Hand. In this tale, a woman has lost her husband and daughter in a tragic accident. Unable to overcome her grief, she takes to the road, stopping at a small diner with a little magical dinner entertainment. The entertainer is intrigued by the woman, and what follows is a sad-but-hopeful story that twists the Faustian bargain to the good of the protagonist, though in a surprising way. It’s an eloquent exploration of the nature of love and loss, grief and hope, and the extent to which human beings will go to hold onto those they love, even if only in memory.
“The Children of the Shark God” continues the theme of family. Using a fairy tale/myth of the Pacific Islands, Beagle explores absentee parents. The Shark God falls in love with a woman of the islands, leaving her pregnant with twins. But the Shark God only visits the island and his family once a year to collect his tribute, and his children never know him as a person. His daughter, gifted with her father’s fierceness, sets out in search of him, in order to question his seeming lack of love for his children. But it is only in shared grief that the Shark God and his children can find common ground for building a relationship. Beagle’s mastery of character really shines through in this story, as an unfortunately very common modern occurrence—the absence of one parent—is explored through myth. Like the Greeks, Norse, and Native Americans before him, Beagle investigates humanity through the fantastic.
Another previously unpublished tale, “The Best Worst Monster” alleviates the gloomier stories that opened the anthology with a funny parody of Frankenstein. Having a soul is difficult for a monster frequently forced by his master to destroy parts of the local village. But no matter how much “SoulAway” his master uses, the monster just can’t escape the strange feeling that what he is doing is wrong. Short but effective, this tale is a celebration of monsters, bedtime stories, and Beppo the Beggar.
“What Tune the Enchantress Plays” is a story set in Beagle’s Innkeeper’s World. The Enchantress calls forth a demon to tell it a story, her story. Born to a family that passes its magic down through the seed of the male, Breya falls in love with a man outside that heritage. Her taskmaster mother then plots and schemes to get Breya away from her lover, and attune her attention to becoming the best enchantress the world has ever seen. The first-person perspective of the writing, the family resentment and difficulties, and the teenage rebellion of Breya make this an easily relatable tale for all its fantastic particulars. This is a family story, perhaps a bit more exciting and magic-filled than our own, but the reader will readily see themselves in Breya. Think of the Grimms’ fairytales for plot progression and content, but Jacob Have I Loved for theme and tone.
Werewolves, Creole culture, loyalty, and friendship drive the plotting of “La Lune T’Attend.” Two old werewolves, Arceneaux and Garrigue - always careful to deny themselves anything other than already dead meat at the full of the moon - find that a fellow werewolf they thought they had killed for raping and murdering Arceneaux’s sister nearly forty years before has returned and is stalking their non-werewolf children and grandchildren. These two old dodgers, the only ones able to truly fight this nemesis, use a mix of Creole common sense and humble bravery to overcome the villain. Though the families and characters in this story are far from perfect, and the story ends sadly, it is still a triumphant affirmation of familial and friendly loyalty.
As an excellently compiled collection, the editor knew that after the previous two family dramas, the reader could use a spot of levity. Hence “Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers,” a letter to the editor of a paper from the wife of the giant that Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk” murdered. Through twisting the traditional story in its head, Beagle explores the fractious marriage between the wife and her husband. It’s wonderfully delightful, a masterfully told comedy by a character that denies none of her nature as an eater of sentients, but at the same times comes across as someone’s kindly grandmother.
Beagle fictionalizes his own childhood with “The Rock in the Park.” While lazing about at a park on New York City, thirteen year old Peter and his friend Phil are surprised when three centaurs step from the trees. What follows is part memoir, part fiction, and part celebration of the craft of visual and written art. It’s a tall tale in the proudest American tradition.
In “The Rabbi’s Hobby” a young boy is being trained for his Bar Mitzvah. But, like any thirteen year old, he is easily and willingly distracted. When the Rabbi who is his teacher points out a face on a magazine cover both he and the boy are soon caught up in solving the mystery of that model’s identity. The conclusion is surprising, and the young boy grows into manhood when a simple letter teaches him that he “had no understanding of beauty. And no idea of what love is, or what can be born out of love.” Beautiful and entrancing, this seemingly mundane story, based on Beagle’s childhood experiences is a heartrending story of friendship between old wisdom and plucky youth.
“Oakland Dragon Blues” brings in the characters of an author, a cop, and a dragon to write a paean to the power of the imagination. Like many of Beagle’s urban fantasies, the tale is an extended metaphor, mixing the imaginary and the real together to create a sense of the ethereal. It’s wonderful reading.
A thriller rather than a fantasy, “The Bridge Partner” is about a bridge fan that is stalked by her bridge partner. Thinking that the threat “I will kill you” is a figment of her imagination, Mattie Whalen dismisses the threat. But when Olivia Korhonen begins showing up at all of Mattie’s frequent haunts, she begins to think that the under-her-breath threat is something more. Beagle builds the suspense brilliantly, and when the story spins 180 degrees on its axis at its conclusion, it is as exciting as any early episode of CSI. Beagle adds a psychological element as well, both in Mattie’s strained marriage and self-reliance and in the predatory evil of Olivia. A true suspense mystery in the vein of Sleeping with the Enemy.
“Dirae” takes a little bit of getting used to in reading the story, but is a great story of an unusual warrior whose origins are lost in the tale’s construction, to good effect. A woman keeps appearing at just the right time throughout a city to save children, women, and others from the evils of muggers, rapists, and neglect. But she doesn’t know who she is, or why she is drawn to the “Jane Doe” in a coma at the local hospital. Beagle’s warrior is the vigilante we all wish we could be, but whose existence comes at a terrible cost. It takes a bit of work to read in the early pages, but the payoff is worth the effort.
The collection aptly closes with “Vanishing,” a ghost story that mixes alternate universes, the Berlin wall of 1963, and personal guilt in an amalgamation that is ridiculous on its face but a beautiful tale of redemption in its depths. To explain it much more than that is to destroy its effectiveness, but suffice it to say that it’s a multilayered story that eloquently concludes a collection by an author whose greatest writing gift is creating character.
Sleight of Hand is a must-have collection for fans of Peter Beagle. It coalesces a lot of the stories of the past few years of the much more prolific Beagle that have appeared in widely different venues and so are not always easy for even the most devoted fan to find. This is also a great collection for those who keeping hearing about this author Neil Gaiman described as “the gold standard of fantasy” to begin with as it collects a wide variety of Beagle’s stories, yet is thematically connected and showcases Beagle’s fascination and ability to fantastically represent familial bonds and loyal friendships.
John Ottinger III thinks that if you haven’t read anything by Peter S. Beagle you really, really should. He also writes reviews and musings at Grasping for the Wind.